Building a Better Boomer
If you’re as generally pleased with yourself most of the time as over the years so many Baby Boomers have been known to be, your first inclination upon reading the above title might very well be to ask “Why?” — as in “I think we’re pretty great the way we are.” [Arguably, our generation has had its problems, but low self-esteem has never been one of them. So if words to that effect did cross your mind, you have nothing to be ashamed of.]
On the other hand, we should take no pride in deluding ourselves with the belief that there’s no need, or for that matter room, for improvement in the Boomer brand. That’s especially true if we’re to have any hope of remaining relevant in a rapidly-changing multi-generational environment where the kinds of things we’ve supplied for so long are in increasingly-shorter demand.
And by no means is that description limited to just what I suppose you could call our “hard goods,” although they do lend themselves beautifully to illustrating an important aspect of the problem facing us. And that is that Baby Boomers may be the last possessions-friendly generation.
If you think back to where you lived when you were growing up, there’s a pretty good chance you can remember some item or another that was a “Hey, be careful with that!” thing. It was probably something that was passed down to your parents by their parents, who proudly presented it to them as a treasured “heirloom.” [Not so much of a “treasure” that what they could’ve made selling it might’ve covered a nice chunk of your college tuition, but still presumably valuable enough that they’d be sure it was displayed prominently whenever they had people over.]
By now, of course, the aforementioned prized piece of the family legacy may have already made its way from their home to yours — a transfer that may or may not have been greeted with your full and enthusiastic appreciation. [Translation: You were the family member who drew the short straw.]
But if you think you were resistant to accepting custody of Great-Grandma’s admittedly-handsome but ultimately-impractical solid mahogany chifforobe, wait til you try convincing your kids — who unfortunately consider IKEA high-end décor — to take it off your hands. And by the way, if you’re not sure what a chifforobe is, don’t feel bad. Spellcheck didn’t have a clue, either — which only serves to reinforce my point that sooner or later, everything — be they objects, ideas or people — will embark on the inevitable journey from vital to vintage to virtually obsolete.
The part of potential obsolescence that Boomers may find most discomforting would probably be having to accept that we’re no longer at the center of the action socially, culturally and politically — especially knowing the profound impact we once had in all of those arenas. But for those of my fellow Boomers who can’t imagine anything worse than the thought that they might no longer matter, I suggest they try imagining having never mattered in the first place.
That desire to make a difference was probably one of our biggest once-upon-a-time motivations for getting up off our denim-clad college-age butts and out into the thick of things, where our generation’s destiny — and our opportunity to matter — awaited. So unless we’re prepared to believe that we only get one such opportunity and defeatedly accept that ours has come and gone, the question we should be asking isn’t “Why?” It’s “What do we do now?”
The answer, as you might’ve guessed, is “Build a better Boomer.” Because when you come right down to it, it’s really our only option. I mean, it’s not like we can produce new ones. Practically speaking, the license for manufacturing our model expired in 1964, which I imagine was just fine with our parents, who — considering that they’d spent every day since 1946 rearing millions of headstrong, hyperkinetic Boomers — had to have been exhausted.
At that point, the oldest of those Boomers were now frisky, free-thinking 18-year-olds, who in short order would start pumping out Generation X babies. It was a labor of free love they would faithfully devote themselves to for the next 11 years, until the Xers’ relinquished the procreation prerogative to their offspring, the Millennials, who would keep the genetic assembly line moving until 1995 — a full 31 years after the last Boomer rolled off the factory floor.
Given the amount of time that Boomers — who are now between 53 and 71 years of age, assuming they’re still on the road — are, to put it delicately, spending in the repair shop, you can understand how the Millennials caught up with and passed us to achieve the same kind of demographic advantage we once held, now outnumbering both us and their Gen X parents. Competitively, then, where does that leave us?
Well, certainly not down or out — unless, of course, we let it. Then again, that’s never been our style, has it? Just like we’ve never been about people pleasing — not when there were cages to be rattled or rabble to be roused. But how can we effectively put the unique set of skills we possess to productive, socially-influential use in today’s new reality?
The same way we did it every other time we changed the world. By taking full advantage of our strengths — the qualities that made Boomers Boomers. And those are, you ask? I did, too, utilizing the totally-unscientific but widely-applied data collection method of forming my own opinion in advance and then running it by randomly-selected people until I was satisfied with the number I’d found who agreed with me. [Why should this be any different from the way we make most of our decisions?]
Questionable research protocols aside, the responses I got were actually surprisingly consistent. Among the many enlightening assessments offered by members of both our generation and others, I found that Baby Boomers are seen as being independent, creative, candid […O.K., they might have said blunt…], passionate, proactive, persistent […Again, it may have been stubborn…], idealistic, impatient and occasionally self-righteous. [You’ll note that I never said they were all desirable qualities.]
Obviously every generation’s personality has its rough edges. On the plus side, though, a well-honed edge can come in pretty handy when you need to cut through red tape to facilitate social change. And deftly applied, abrasiveness can effectively smooth and shape an emerging new world into the thing of beauty that the generation building it envisioned that it could be.
Which brings us to the new present and future purpose to which we can devote whatever power remains from our past prominence. If we are, in fact, consigned by fate to no longer lead as we once did, the supportive role in which we’re now called to serve need not be one of lesser importance. It may actually be the most significant one we’ve ever played.
Even though we’re no longer leading, the world still needs leadership. And as of now, that challenge is becoming more the responsibility of the Millennials with every passing day. What makes me optimistic about that is how often I’ve heard them described as being idealistic activists with an acute, innate intolerance for injustice. The kind of social sensibility that manifests itself in things like “Occupy Movements” — or, as we used to call them, “Sit-ins.” Sound like anyone you know? [I have no idea if they take the comparison as a compliment or an insult, but we can hope for the best.]
Each generation walks in not just the preceding generation’s footsteps but in those of every one that came before it. The fact that the Baby Boomers’ parents, the deservedly-named “Greatest Generation,” quite literally saved the world made them a pretty hard act to immediately follow. By the same gesture, Boomers have every right to expect and every reason to feel responsible for ensuring that their example will have a positive impact on the generation currently at the wheel.
It’s in our nature as Boomers to want to make the world a better place. Building the best possible version of ourselves and putting it out there as an example and inspiration to anyone who’s working toward that goal can only move us all closer to it. And though I think the symbolism of “passing the torch” sometimes suffers from overuse, in this case there’s a practical implication that bears pointing out.
These are arguably dark days, and they may grow darker yet. If anyone needs light to help us find our way through them, it’s the ones who are leading us.
© 2017 Doug Carpenter